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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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THE PILGRIMS - Part III: A Fifty-Year Friendship Treaty

Having survived the perils of the north Atlantic crossing aboard the Mayflower, during their first winter in Massachusetts nearly half of the Pilgrims had perished from malnutrition, scurvy, and exposure to frigid temperatures. Living conditions were harsh both on and off the ship. One early casualty was William Bradford’s young wife Dorothy who drowned after falling off the ship’s deck while Bradford was on shore searching for food and a suitable place to build
their community.

The Pilgrims came from generations of farmers and were accustomed to raising livestock and producing grains and other crops from their rich English soil. Unfortunately, the seeds they brought to the New World did not fare well in the rocky soil of Massachusetts, so their only other source of food that first winter came from hunting game in an unfamiliar landscape.

However, during the next three months, the colony began to take shape. They had managed to build a Common House and nineteen small huts, all made from braided twigs, branches, leaves, and mud. As they worked, the Pilgrims became aware that they were being stealthily watched by native braves hiding in the forests. However, their work had to continue because the women and children would have to disembark from the Mayflower by early March before the Mayflower was scheduled to sail back to England. Regardless of what lay ahead in this unknown land, the Pilgrims chose not to return to England with its state-dictated religions. They were committed to living, and raising their families, by the principles found in the Bible.
In mid-March, a self-assured young brave walked into the midst of their encampment and greeted them in English! His name was Samoset and he explained that he had learned some English phrases from earlier British sailors who fished for cod in Massachusetts bay. Samoset was sent by the Wampanoag Chief Massasoit to prepare for a meeting with the newcomers. The chief would follow and be accompanied by another brave named Squanto who was fluent in the English language. Squanto had been kidnapped by earlier explorers and taken to England to be sold in the slave markets. Eventually, he was rescued by compassionate monks who arranged to have Squanto returned to his homeland in North America.

As a result of this remarkable encounter, Squanto was able to serve as the interpreter between the Pilgrims and Chief Massasoit. While the Wampanoags taught the colonists how to plant corn using fish heads as fertilizer, as well as other unfamiliar hunting and fishing techniques, the colonists shared European technology, such as iron tools and weapons. Their friendship resulted in a mutually beneficial treaty lasting for fifty years. Their bonds of trust also provided mutual protection for both the natives and the colonists from some of the more aggressive regional tribes.

Before leaving England, the British investors had given instructions that Bradford’s colony was to operate as a collective, which meant that each family unit was to share whatever crops or goods they produced with the whole community. In time, it became clear that there were those among them who did not contribute their fair share of work. And, just like the Jamestown experience, these same people felt free to help themselves to the communal stores of food and supplies.

William Bradford wrote in his journal that under this collective system, the colonists, “…languished in misery, discontentment…thievery and famine…” After two difficult years, Bradford parceled out land to individual families to exploit for their own benefit. “…this had a very good success,” wrote Bradford, “for it made all hands very industrious.” From that time forward, the colony prospered under Bradford’s new direction. While emphasizing good community values, he encouraged individual enterprise and trade amongst the Plymouth colonists, native tribes, and eventually, future colonists. William Bradford was repeatedly elected Governor of Plymouth over the next thirty years..

John M. Murrin, et al, Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People (Harcourt College Publishers)